Cultural Caviar

Prohibition: Twin Sister of Women’s Suffrage

September 18, 2013

Multiple Pages
Prohibition: Twin Sister of Women’s Suffrage

We live in an era obsessed with gender oppression. For example, Americans were recently alerted that the women of Harvard Business School are deprived of their rightful grade point averages by being asked out so often on expensive dates by well-heeled suitors.

Yet this isn’t the first time that the evils of sexism have preoccupied American culture. Beginning soon after the triumph of women’s suffrage in 1919-1920, gender oppression was vigorously denounced in the media until well into the 1960s. Many of the leading intellectuals, artists, and entertainers of mid-century America complained tirelessly about the domination of one sex over another. The nearly universal wail went up: How could human beings be so cruel to other humans just because they were of the opposite sex?

Of course, what H. L. Mencken, Groucho Marx, Ernest Hemingway, Ben Hecht, James Thurber, W. C. Fields, Raymond Chandler, Billy Wilder, Robert Heinlein, Norman Mailer, and so many others were kvetching about was how women were crushing their henpecked men under their iron heels.

This was the grand age of femmes fatales, who twisted seeming tough guys around their silken ankles. An even more dreaded bogeywoman was the mother-in-law.

In contrast, American cinema today offers few femmes fatales, and American television finds nothing funny about mother-in-law jokes. As far as I can tell, nobody has noticed that there’s something comic about our poor president having to live with his mother-in-law in the surprisingly claustrophobic confines of the White House (other than, perhaps, one zany Brazilian sketch show).

Why did first-wave feminism fizzle after its triumphs of 1918-1919? It’s an interesting question that’s hard to think about these days because our understanding of the past has become so conditioned by simplistic good-or-bad labels that Americans tend to generate a Does Not Compute error message when apprised of what actually happened.

“The great cause pursued by the 1920s intelligentsia was manly bohemianism in its war with womanly Victorianism.”

For example, it’s widely assumed today that artists and intellectuals are naturally on the economic left. Yet until the 1929 Wall Street crash, highbrows showed little interest in communism or even in the poor. The great cause pursued by the 1920s intelligentsia was manly bohemianism in its war with womanly Victorianism.

For example, Mencken, whom The New York Times described in 1926 as “the most powerful private citizen” in America due to his influence on the new generation of writers, was an ardent follower of the male chauvinist Friedrich Nietzsche. The Baltimore journalist advocated aristocratic disdain of the democratic ethos of the small-town America that had produced William Jennings Bryan, supporter of women’s suffrage and Prohibition, whom Mencken savaged during the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.

The first edition of Mencken’s book In Defense of Women failed commercially in 1918. But in the new climate of 1922, the expanded second edition proved a bestseller. In his usual understated, diplomatic style, Mencken characterized suffragettes as “indignant viragoes.” Yet, he argued, women on the whole were the wiser, more cynical, more Menckenian sex:

I am convinced that the average woman, whatever her deficiencies, is greatly superior to the average man. The very ease with which she defies and swindles him in several capital situations of life is the clearest of proofs of her general superiority.

In effect, No true Scotswoman could believe in suffrage or Prohibition:

I believe that the majority of women…were not eager for the extension [of the vote], and regard it as of small value today. They know that they can get what they want without going to the actual polls for it; moreover, they are out of sympathy with most of the brummagem reforms advocated by the professional suffragists, male and female. The mere statement of the current suffragist platform, with its long list of quack sure-cures for all the sorrows of the world, is enough to make them smile sadly.

In this intellectual climate, small-town America was seen as dominated by killjoy women of a certain age intent upon domesticating men. For example, the boast of The New Yorker, launched in 1925 by Harold Ross, a veteran from Utah who had been based in Paris during WWI, was “not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.”

The New Yorker’s first superstar was James Thurber, an Ohio boy who had also served in Paris. His favorite theme was The War Between Men and Women. In Thurber cartoons, small, mild-mannered husbands are overshadowed by their giant wives, while the man’s bloodhound looks on in sympathy. His most famous short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, recounts the adventurous fantasies of a man stuck driving his wife on her errands. (Here is the trailer from the wifeless upcoming movie version starring Ben Stiller.)

The muted theme of the veterans “after they’ve seen Paree” was America’s dire need for more ooh-la-la. But their outrage could be turned more explicitly upon Prohibition, which had proven to be suffragism’s twin sister. Over the objections of women’s suffrage’s main opponents in the liquor lobby, Congress had passed Prohibition in 1919 to placate the women they were about to enfranchise. Prohibition was the disaster that undermined women’s empowerment for the next half-century.

Wilfrid Sheed wrote of the mid-century New Yorker:

Thurber’s world cannot remotely be understood without understanding Prohibition, or the locker-room version of it: a plot brewed up by women and Protestant ministers while our soldiers were overseas, in order to end America’s men-only culture and bring the boys all the way home, not just as far as the nearest saloon.

Daniel Okrent, the author of the 2010 history of Prohibition, Last Call, told NPR, “Oddly, the suffrage movement and the Prohibition movement were almost one and the same.…”

But it’s only odd from a contemporary perspective where Prohibition is bad and feminism is good, and thus they can’t have anything to do with each other, because that would be, you know, complicated.

In reality, WASP, Scandinavian, and Irish Catholic women had rational reasons to campaign against the saloons where their husbands wasted away their paychecks and health in binge drinking.

On the other hand, even if Prohibition had worked, Italian and Jewish immigrants hardly needed it. They had ancestors who had been drinking wine almost from the invention of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent. They had thereby evolved defenses, whether cultural or genetic, against the damage alcohol can do.

In the middle were Americans from Central Europe such as Mencken. The Germans generally favored beer drinking, which was less debilitating and more family-friendly than the Northwestern European hard-liquor habit. But German-American brewers had fallen out of favor during the anti-Teutonic war fever of 1917, undermining one bulwark against the Anti-Saloon League.

Interestingly, there was a positive correlation between an ethnic group’s long-term cultural leaning toward women’s liberation and its vulnerability to alcohol, with Northwestern Europeans being high on both. In North America, feminism arguably goes back over 1,000 years to Viking leader Leif Ericson’s alarming sister, Freydís Eiríksdóttir, scourge of the Skraelings. Northwestern Europeans, most notably the English, were moving away from arranged marriages by the Middle Ages.

So it was not surprising that WASPy America was favorable ground for feminism in the early 20th century, as shown by the Yankee domination of the women’s vote movement. In contrast, the newer immigrants of the era, such as Sicilians and Jews, came from more patriarchal cultures.

For instance, back during the D. W. Griffith era of filmmaking, women were widely employed as screenwriters, editors, directors, and even producers. Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” produced her own movies from 1916 onward and became a mogul in 1919 when she, her fiancé Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith founded United Artists.

In the later 1920s, Gloria Swanson, backed by her boyfriend Joseph Kennedy, Sr.’s money, attempted to follow Pickford’s path into controlling her own career. But the now dominant studio system had little use for such presumption. Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, starring Swanson as washed-up silent star Norma Desmond, reflects studio Hollywood’s view of the powerful women of the industry’s early days as uppity broads who deserved to turn into crazy old bats. In the real world, though, Swanson, an extremely enterprising woman, had found numerous ways after leaving Hollywood for New York to make money (and would continue to do so up until her death in the 1980s).

The rise of the Ellis Island immigrant populations helped delay feminism’s triumph that had once seemed imminent in WASP-dominated America. But that’s the kind of paradox likely to be met with blank stares in 2013.


Daily updates with TM’s latest